A Constitutional Right To Vote

Via Brian Beutler, I read Matt Yglesias’ piece at Vox from earlier this week reviving an old idea that is freshly relevant: a constitutional amendment enshrining the right to vote.

Some people are surprised to learn the right to vote is not already considered part of the Constitution, since the country did pass the Fifteenth Amendment a while back (it was ratified in 1870) banning abrogation of “the right to vote” to anyone by virtue of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But it did not separately establish a universal and affirmative “right to vote.”

Yglesias supports a highly visible effort to create such a right as a way to deal with voter suppression efforts based on spurious “voter fraud” concerns:

America prohibits racial and gender discrimination in voting rights because of a clear belief in the importance of voting to equal citizenship. The best way to vindicate this right would be through something like the language of a proposed constitutional amendment introduced last year by Reps. Mark Pocan and Keith Ellison, which states that “every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.”

A constitutional right to vote would instantly flip the script on anti-fraud efforts. States would retain a strong interest in developing rules and procedures that make it hard for ineligible voters to vote, but those efforts would be bounded by an ironclad constitutional guarantee that legitimate citizens’ votes must be counted. A state that wanted to require possession of a certain ID card to vote, for example, would have to take affirmative steps to ensure that everyone has that ID card, or that there’s a process for an ID-less citizen to cast a ballot and have it counted later upon verification of citizenship.

I’d actually argue the most important byproduct of an affirmative right to vote would be a more general authorization for standard national policies governing voting and elections, and guaranteeing adequately staffed and uniform electoral infrastructure. It’s ludicrous that we keep allowing states and localities, sincerely or with bad faith, to beg off their responsibilities for making voting convenient and transparent on grounds that it’s just too expensive. But without a constitutional right to vote, there’s no cause of action to force improvements, and no basis for uniform federal rules.

Yes, as Yglesias acknowledges, it’s very hard to enact constitutional amendments. But as Yglesas also suggests, a campaign for one could change the debate over voting significantly, and force into the open the opposition to general voting rights that is just beneath the surface among those allegedly fighting “voter fraud.” If Republicans allow themselves to be defined on this subject by Constitutional Conservatives who oppose the very idea of democracy, and think the Founders were right to favor property requirements (not to mention gender and racial requirements!) for voting, and strict permanent limits on what voters are allowed to vote for and against, then let them be forced to say so explicitly and often.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.